Phenomenology and Hermeneutics

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This chapter provides an overview of phenomenology and hermeneutics in medicine, explaining the philosophical grounding and practical motivation for this approach. The chapter opens with the story of Emma, a young woman suffering from a rare respiratory disease. It then explains the importance of having an approach that can capture the experience of illness, as well as of decoupling it from a biomedical understanding of disease by distinguishing illness from disease. Phenomenology enables us to focus on the experience of illness itself, whilst bracketing the causal and ontological assumptions that accompany the biomedical model.

The chapter explains a core phenomenological distinction between the objective (‘biological’) body and the subjective ‘body as lived’, and links it to the hermeneutical distinction between the different horizons of patient and health professional. This distinction between the objective body and the body as lived is mapped on to the disease/ illness distinction. The distinction enables us to (1) differentiate between the different orders of the body and thus provide a detailed account of embodied illness experiences (2) conceptualise the complexity of the intersubjective encounter in the clinic and (3) understand particular embodied experiences that characterise illness, such as alienation, uncanniness and bodily doubt.

The chapter then turns to hermeneutics, focusing on the work of Fredrik Svenaeus (2000a; 2000b; 2000c), to explain the usefulness of this approach. Using the notion of illness as ‘unhomelike being in the world’, I discuss the role of medicine in this context, which is to find a way to return patients to a more homelike being. I end with a survey of recent work in the phenomenology of illness and hermeneutics of medicine and of the ways in which phenomenology has been applied in medical research, training and education.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationRoutledge Companion to Philosophy of Medicine
EditorsMiriam Solomon, Jeremy Simon, Harold Kincaid
Number of pages10
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Structured keywords

  • Centre for Humanities Health and Science


  • Phenomenology; hermeneutics; lived experience; bodily doubt; Merleau-Ponty

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